The football players looked up to the Alonso High School coaches, men they spent nearly every afternoon with throughout the school year. But when the teenagers considered transferring, their mothers say the relationships turned ugly and harassment began.
Seniors Kelvin Clemmons and Chris Oladokun and sophomore Jermaine Eskridge — all high-profile football recruits — left Alonso last spring under varying circumstances. But each believes the coaching staff turned teammates and classmates against them, there are worries that efforts for a college scholarship are being undermined, and two had their Alonso statistics mysteriously vanish from a popular website.
Oladokun went from a popular student to school pariah after coaches circulated a rumor that he was abandoning Alonso for a private school, his mother said. After harassment on social media and in the hallways, by teammates and assistant coach Greg Callahan, Alonso administrators and the Hillsborough County School Board eventually stepped in to remove him from a hostile environment, his mother, Jennifer Carter, said, placing him at nearby Sickles High in April.
That same month, Clemmons and Eskridge transferred to Sickles and Jefferson, respectively, and their mothers claim Alonso coaches tried to block their sons' eligibility at their new schools and derail their college recruitment.
"Just because Kelvin left, they're trying to build this whole thing against my son. And it's crazy," Alicia Clemmons said. "You're doing all of this just to keep a child from playing football. That's all he has."
At Alonso, football practices and games carry on as usual. Assistant principal Larissa McCoy-Mitti said she was unaware that Clemmons and Eskridge's mothers had grievances with Alonso's coach, and she doesn't dispute that texts and tweets that upset Oladokun were sent by Alonso coaches.
She also stressed that the administration takes such situations seriously, and she would never turn someone away before looking into any of their claims.
"We don't condone — we would never condone — someone mistreating a kid," McCoy-Mitti said.
• • •
Oladokun, one of the top quarterbacks in the Tampa Bay area, threw for more than 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons as Alonso's starter.
Once coaches and players learned Oladokun's family had looked into possibly moving him to Tampa Catholic, he was shunned, Carter said.
The administration at Alonso learned about the potential move when it received a letter from Tampa Catholic inquiring about his academic and behavioral record early in the semester. Oladokun was called to the office, where McCoy-Mitti, then-athletic director Brian Grantham and head football coach Brian Emanuel had questions. The interaction ended with Oladokun becoming so anxious that he called his mother to pick him up early from school, Carter said.
McCoy-Mitti insists they were just caught off guard.
"I do understand that when there's three adults in the room, it can be overwhelming," she said. "He talked to his dad for a couple minutes, then he brought the phone into my office. Dad just explained to me what his concerns were and why they were looking into another school, and we respected that decision."
At the time, Carter said she hoped that would be the end of it. Instead, the harassment started.
"Does anyone have loyalty any longer? Smh" assistant coach Callahan tweeted on March 17. He also texted Oladokun, who was still at Alonso, "Can you please at least be kind enough to return my gear. Thanks."
Emanuel made an announcement to the rest of the team about Oladokun's supposed impending transfer without Oladokun present, Carter said, and that meeting and Callahan's tweet sparked a barrage of verbal and electronic backlash.
"You're an (expletive) snake No. 1," another tweet from a student read.
"We had an entire couple of days of people constantly calling, texting him, saying things in the hallways, to the point where he had to sit in the principal's office to do his work," Carter said.
Carter, with texts and social media posts in hand, took the issue to the Alonso administration and the school district, and area superintendent Lisa Yost told her that Oladokun would be moved to Sickles.
Carter said she believes Emanuel cared about her son, even if he did exhibit poor judgment in talking about Oladokun to the team. And according to his district personnel file, Emanuel, a district employee since 1997, has an exemplary record as a teacher.
Carter also had positive things to say about the way McCoy-Mitti dealt with her family.
But right up until Oladokun was removed from Alonso, Carter questioned why there was no punishment for Callahan, whom she holds most responsible for what happened to her son.
McCoy-Mitti disputes that, saying principal Kenneth Hart had a meeting with Callahan — with Emanuel in attendance — at which Callahan was "verbally reprimanded."
• • •
For years, Alicia Clemmons was financially unstable. But in February 2014, she rented her own apartment five minutes from Sickles High. A year after that, her son Kelvin moved in with her.
When Clemmons decided it would be best for Kelvin to start attending Sickles, she told her son to let the football coaches know. Clemmons, who also works at Alonso as a teacher's aide, said that's when the trouble began.
"I said, 'Kelvin, go to the coach and explain to them what's going on,' " she said. "(Emanuel) slammed the door in his face."
Clemmons said she later found out Callahan had told a college recruiter at Bowling Green to stay away from Kelvin, when the recruiter relayed the exchange to his coaches at Sickles. And Callahan wasn't the only one threatening her son's future, Alicia said.
"(Emanuel) walked up to me and said if he had anything to do with Kelvin going to college, he ain't going because (Emanuel) doesn't have anything nice to stay about him," Clemmons said.
Emanuel said his administration has told him not to comment on the matter. Multiple attempts to reach Callahan for comment were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, on the high school football website MaxPreps, there is no proof that Clemmons or Oladokun ever played football for the Ravens; their names and stats are deleted from the database, which is controlled by coaches.
In June, Clemmons said she submitted paperwork explaining her situation and her previous financial woes to help prove the need for Kelvin to move to his new school.
But on Aug. 20, just one day before Sickles' preseason game against Steinbrenner, Kelvin was told he was ineligible, even though his younger brother, a freshman on Sickles' roster, was cleared to play. Clemmons said she was told by Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson only that Alonso contradicted some of her story. Robinson declined to talk about specific cases.
"Kelvin came to my car in tears," Clemmons said "And that's when I lost it."
• • •
Eskridge has also been through his own eligibility issues since transferring to Jefferson, a decision his mother said Emanuel also met with coldness.
"When Jermaine first got there and I talked to the coach (Emanuel) … he was just the nicest guy," Keshia Ravnell said. "As soon as he heard that Jermaine was going to leave … he was mean to him. He wouldn't talk to him. He would roll his eyes at him."
After Eskridge left Alonso — he was granted a choice hardship because Ravnell said she goes to dialysis three days per week near Jefferson and didn't want her kids to be home alone — communication with assistant coaches didn't stop. Ravnell said coaches called and texted him, asking her son for his new address so they could come "see how big he'd gotten."
"Why would you even call him and ask him, 'Where are you living now, I want to see how big you got?' " Ravnell said.
Soon after, men claiming to be college recruiters started texting her son, asking similar things.
Ravnell said a district investigator visited her home last week to verify her son's residence, then county athletic director Robinson later told her that Alonso provided a text message sent by Eskridge in May to an alleged recruiter from the University of Southern California saying he still lived at his old address.
But because Eskridge had been granted a hardship for his transfer, his address wasn't supposed to impact his enrollment at Jefferson.
According to the school district website, a hardship can be "revoked by principals, at anytime, if established standards for conduct, attendance, tardiness, and civility are not maintained." None of these reasons were cited when Eskridge's eligibility was suddenly called into question. Still, Ravnell believes Alonso tried to prove that she and her son were deceiving the school district.
Per NCAA recruiting rules, colleges are not allowed to contact high school players electronically — and texts are not permitted — until Sept. 1 of their junior year. Eskridge was still a freshman when texted.
When Ravnell contacted Southern California, she said she was told no one by that name worked at the university.
• • •
Alicia Clemmons met with an attorney on Tuesday. On Thursday evening, she learned that her son was officially cleared to play.
"I'm about to cry," she said.
Despite Kelvin's victory, Clemmons said she still intends to take her complaints against Alonso to area superintendent Yost.
As games began Friday, Eskridge was still ineligible. Ravnell said the county athletic director told her the case may have to be decided by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
As for Oladokun, he had the opportunity to leave his past experiences behind him and create new ones as the starting quarterback at Sickles. Friday, his old team and his new team — on which Carter said Oladokun has adjusted quite well — squared off in the season opener.
The circumstances surrounding the three players' departures from Alonso and the football program were all different. Each mother, however, has decried a lack of professionalism from the school's employees; those whose ultimate responsibility, Carter said, is to be a positive influence for children.
"Chris had to take all these repercussions on things that adults did," Carter said. "Every coach that said something is still on the Alonso sideline."
Contact Kelly Parsons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @_kellyparsons.